Life Science in a Jar: Caterpillars

Whilst J was busy rearing mealworms, Little E asked me if she could also keep a pet. It just so happened that one of my old schoolmates is a primary school science teacher (henceforth referred to in this post as Mrs Great), and she had access to some caterpillars. She offered to give Little E a few of them and I was so excited to have another opportunity to study some more little creatures up close!

The very next day, Mrs Great rocked up with a clear tupperware that had four spiky black caterpillars, each about a centimetre long, happily nibbling away on spray of lime leaves. I don’t have a lime plant at home, so I was a little bit worried about having enough leaves for all the caterpillars – but Mrs Great assured me that there were probably enough leaves to last the caterpillars about two weeks.

lime-caterpillar-butterfly

Some Very Hungry Caterpillars in different stages of maturity

The next day, about half the leaves were gone, and the little black caterpillars had doubled in size, developing streaks of bright green. There were also little dry balls of caterpillar poo rolling about the bottom of the tupperware, which I emptied out into a flower pot on my balcony. This wasn’t a particularly nasty job as everything smelled pleasantly of lime juice.

On the third day, one of the caterpillars had turned a bright green and was the size of my little finger. It was eating up the lime leaves at an alarming rate. I sent a text message to my friend Mrs Great, who was kind enough to drop by with a bunch of lime leaves, but I knew that at the rate the caterpillars were going, I would definitely need to find more lime leaves before the end of the week.

Sure enough, by the start of the fifth day, it was clear that I would need to find more lime leaves for the caterpillars or they would certainly starve.

lime-leaves-butterfly-caterpillar

Running out of leaves!

Unfortunately, I went to three different supermarkets and three different wet markets and nobody had any lime leaves for sale! By this time, Little E was nearly in tears, upset that her caterpillars might starve to death.

However, as I was driving home, I passed by my local community garden. I stopped by, hoping against hope that I would find the leaves that I needed.

I didn’t think I’d be able to identify a lime plant without it’s signature green fruit, so I ran around taking pictures of various little plants and sending them to Mrs Great for identification. Fortunately, one of the pot plants had a tiny little green lime hanging on the one of the stems! Hooray! Community gardens save the day!

I plucked off a spray of leaves and triumphantly brought it to Little E who was waiting in the car for me.

The Aged P also went to talk to the security guard of her flat who keeps a variety of plants in his little guard outpost – and he so happened to have a lime kaffir plant that he was carefully cultivating. She managed to convince him to part with a few leaves which I kept in a cup of water to keep them fresh.

I was almost down to the last spray of lime kaffir leaves when we noticed that the caterpillars had stopped eating and were curling up on themselves, wiggling very slowly. One by one, they each moulted one last time, forming chrysalids that were securely fastened to the sides of the tupperware by silken threads.

lime-butterfly-chrysalis

The Chrysalid and the Lime Butterfly

About a week later, the first butterfly emerged from it’s chrysalis! Little E was so excited, watching it pump it’s wings to fully inflate them and dry them out. We released it on our balcony and it rested there for a few hours before fluttering off.

As for the other three chrysalids, we noticed that all three had turned translucent one morning – we could see the black and white butterfly wings folded up beneath the surface of each chrysalis – so I told Little E to bring the tupperware to her kindergarten and share the magic of the butterfly with her classmates.

Sure enough the butterflies emerged from their chrysalids midway through her class time, much to the delight of everyone present. The teachers gently picked them up and released them into the school’s eco-garden, with Little E and all her classmates waving and yelling “Goodbye! Goodbye!”

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Maxilla by Lianne Ong: A Book Review (and links to giveaways!)

When I was around eight years old, my mom brought home a leaf in a jam jar which was covered in butterfly eggs. At the time, we were reading Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ together, and I think she was hoping to cultivate two mini-naturalists in the house.

Unfortunately, she overlooked our zeal for feeding the tiny caterpillars that emerged from the eggs. According to Eric Carle’s ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, caterpillars thrive on a diet of fresh fruits and the occasional piece of chocolate cake. With that in mind, Becky and I collected a variety of leaves and stuffed them gleefully into the jam jar, watching with joy as the ravenous little caterpillars began munching away at the leaves.

Of course, the next day, all the poor little caterpillars were dead, poisoned by our toxic love!

Our mother, who until she saw our tearful little faces had no idea what we had done, told us that butterflies laid their eggs only on plants which bear leaves that are suitable for their caterpillars to eat.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s book review (courtesy of MPH Bookstore, who was kind enough to send me a copy to review): Maxilla by local author Lianne Ong.

maxilla-childrens-book

Because if you can be Batman, you should always be Batman.

Maxilla,  is a story based on the true life experiences of Lianne and her son, Reuben, when they were living in the US. In this book, Reuben finds a green caterpillar at school and names it Maxilla (which, by the way, is the scientific term for the mouthparts of an arthropod – such an appropriate name for a very hungry caterpillar!). He takes Maxilla home, only to realise that he is unable to adequately care for the creature.

Reuben learns during the course of the story that love sometimes means relinquishing the things that are held most dear. This theme of sacrificial friendship is one that is also covered in other children’s storybooks like Laura’s Star by Klaus Baumgart and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers, which are two of our favourites.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Lim Shing Ee, a Singaporean artist based in Japan and each page is covered with sweet sketches in colour pencil which adds to the innocent, childlike tone of the book. The pictures, coupled together with the handwritten font, make the whole book resemble a field journal or nature diary. It even has a few pages at the end of the book describing the life cycle of butterflies.

Reading together and enjoying the pictures

It’s nice to see asian children depicted so beautifully in these illustrations.

Unfortunately, the book does not include advice on how to observe or care for caterpillars in captivity but emphasises the maxim that children should leave wild creatures alone. This is something that I personally do not agree with, as I believe that a child’s curiosity about the natural world should be nurtured, albeit under parental guidance. A good book that promotes such responsible scientific study is Growing Frogs by Vivian French, where the development of frogs from spawn gathered from a local pond is keenly observed and recorded by a young girl under her mother’s supervision.

Why is the 'x' in Maxilla so  dark? Is it a sign?

Why is the ‘x’ in Maxilla so dark? Is it a sign?

Additionally, I found that the handwritten font, although interesting and unique, seemed rather cramped and uneven. In certain places, the letters even seemed to run into each other which made it difficult for my son, an emergent reader, to decipher the words. An example of this is the word ‘Internet’ (see in the picture on the left) where the ‘e’ and ‘r’ are so close together that it looks like an ‘a’ at first glance.

The uneven lettering is also very distracting to the eye and can make a page of words appear jumbled and confused with some letters seeming to be emphasised more than others. You can see this most obviously in the ‘x’ in the name ‘Maxilla’ which is darker than the rest of the word, so that it looks like ‘Maxilla’.

For this reason, I would recommend this book as a ‘read aloud’ storybook, and is not suitable for dyslexic children or emergent readers.

However, I still think the book is definitely worth a read! The book did help J and Little E want to know more about butterflies and find out more how they grow and transform from caterpillars. It is most certainly a good book for introducing children to the natural world and showing them how they can learn more about the little creatures that they may meet in the park by doing their own research and by talking to experts.

Here is a brilliant web series about butterflies from Smarter Every Day which really easy to understand and fun to watch. J and Little E learned so much about butterflies and their life cycle.

I am also seriously considering taking the kids to Oh’ Farms to explore the Butterfly Lodge and they could even bring home one of the Oh’ Farms butterfly kits which come with instructions on how to care for caterpillars and nurture them to adulthood! Or we could even try and make our own butterfly kit at home.

Debs G rates Maxilla: One nice green leaf and no chocolate cake!

Maxilla retails at SGD$10.60 and is available worldwide at MPHonline.com, as well as at all major bookstores in Singapore (Kinokuniya, Times Bookstores and MPH Bookstores).

You can also nab a copy of Maxilla for yourself by taking part in this giveaway at Little Blue Bottle (closing date 6 March 2014)! (I’ll be adding more links to Maxilla giveaways next week, so do pop by for a peek!)

Update: More giveaways below –

 

If you would like to meet Lianne and have her autograph your own copy of Maxilla (and maybe catch a glimpse of little Reuben too), you can catch her at:

MPH Bookstores Parkway Parade at 1pm -2 pm on 15 March 2014 (Sat)

or

Woodlands Regional Library at 12noon – 1pm on 21 March 2014 (Fri)